John Henry Johnson was one of the best running backs in NFL history, playing from 1954 to 1966. When he retired, he was the fourth leading rusher of all time. However, it took 21 years to get him elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So what made me think of John Henry Johnson this particular week, a running back who played over 50 years ago. For some reason, his career has always been over looked by the media, and the football hierarchy. This past 2 weeks, it has happened again, and to me, it just seems mystifying. The NFL, celebrating 100 years, is starting to announce all time teams, and John Henry Johnson was nowhere to be found. When the Browns and Steelers met 2 weeks ago there were local articles about some of the more memorable Steeler-Brown games. Of course, they left out the most memorable Brown-Steeler game.
It was October 10, 1964, on a Saturday night, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium before 80,000 fans. This was the second of 8 games, where Pittsburgh went up to Cleveland on Saturday night, beginning in 1963, and ending in 1970. This was the only game the Steelers would win on Saturday, in Cleveland, but that was not the reason this game was the most memorable of the series. The 1964 Browns would go 10-3-1, and win the Eastern Division title and then go on to beat the Baltimore Colts 27-0, after a scoreless first half, to win their last NFL title. But on this rather pleasant Saturday night in Cleveland, the Pittsburgh Steelers would reign supreme. This was the John Henry Johnson game. He would carry the ball 30 times, gain 200 yards, score 3 touchdowns and lead the Steelers to the upset win 23 to 7. There were many things that were significant, in this performance. He is still the oldest player in NFL history to rush for 200 yards in a game, being about 5 weeks shy of his 35th birthday. He went on to gain over a 1000 yards for the 14 game season and is still the oldest running back in NFL history to rush for 1000 yards. This against one of the best Cleveland Browns team in their long and illustrious history. This is by far, the most memorable Pittsburgh-Cleveland game.
Now, one season, and one game, where you out shine the great Jim Brown, does not make you one of the top 12 running backs of all time. John Henry Johnson, however, had a long and illustrious career. He had a better career than either Steve Van Buren or Marion Motley who are on the top 12 running back list. He played in more games, rushed for more yards and had more receiving yards than both players. He was between Van Buren and Motley on career touchdowns. He won an NFL Championship with the Detroit Lions in 1957, and to this day is the only black player to win an NFL Championship in Detroit. But, he was known just as much, for his outstanding blocking. Maybe too well known, and described better, as vicious blocking. He reportedly broke many a jaw and face and some of these in exhibition games. He ended Charlie Trippi’s career with a hit that broke his nose and fractured his skull, in an exhibition game. Was it this style of play, that made people want to forget John Henry? When someone ask Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back of all time, who is the best running back he had ever seen, without hesitation, he said John Henry Johnson. Johnson started his career in San Francisco, where he was part of the million dollar back field, of Y. A. Tittle, Joe Perry, and Hugh McElhenny. He did more blocking during those years or his stats would have been even better. This is the only backfield that has all members in the Hall. It was always a bit of mystery why he was not elected to the Hall of Fame sooner. People that truly know the game, knew that he was one of the top 12 running backs of all time, maybe even in the top 6. When Cleveland comes to Pittsburgh this Sunday to face the Steelers in round 2, and we know how the first game ended, I will be thinking of John Henry Johnson, one of the all time greats. The thing I will be thinking is, I wonder whose jaw he would break to retaliate. He probably wouldn’t be fined or suspended either. John Henry Johnson died in 2011. At his Hall of Fame induction speech, in 1987, he said he thought he would be dead first, before he got into the Hall. Thank God, he was wrong. I don’t think it was a coincidence that he was in the same class as another Steeler, Mean Joe Greene.